Old Master Paintings

Conversation Across Time: Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel

By Alexander Nagel
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel

T urned towards the light, the young man is set against a crisp window embrasure made out of pietra serena, a local stone widely used in Florentine buildings. The angled surfaces turn the greenish-grey stone into a series of contrasting stripes—light grey, dark grey, almost black—that isolate the youth inside multiple frames, like a jewel in a box. His purplish-grey doublet and his green-grey eyes bring to life the hues of grey that surround him. A pillow of golden hair sets off the youth’s fair but rosy face against the flat pale blue sky. Like a buck, he fixes us with a calm but alert gaze, his posture balanced perfectly between reserve and appeal. The slightly raised right eyebrow confirms the bid for our attention even as it evinces confidence in his privilege. The various elements of the face are poised, yet not quite settled into composure—a quality of youth and also perhaps more broadly an index of the electric cultural world that has produced this youth, a world to an unusual degree marked by brilliant young men flinting each other into mutual definition. In the world of this portrait, a pause in the conversation is a condition of being.

All portraits that show a sitter looking out at the viewer engage an implicit conversation, but in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Roundel the sitter presents the viewer with a conversation piece, a round image somewhat formally presented by the youth in order for us to see it. Inside the roundel’s molded frame is a gold-ground painting of a blessing saint. The figure inside the roundel offers a counterpoint to the modern youth: while the body of the young man turns to one side as his gaze meets ours, the saint faces us but looks upward and towards the light.

The painting of the saint is a piece of gold-ground panel painting that has been physically inserted into an excavated cavity in the panel. Although the figure’s face, clothing, and pose are strongly based on Byzantine models, it is an Italian painting not much more than a century older than its host, probably a work of the Sienese painter Bartolomeo Bulgarini, who also worked in Florence. The represented saint, or the altarpiece it came from, may have had some significance to the youth who holds it in Botticelli’s portrait, or to his family.1

Fig. 1: Benedetto da Maiano, Monument to Giotto, Florence Cathedral, 1490 / Scala, Art Resource, NY  

Early Italian painting was achieving venerable status in Florence in the later fifteenth century. Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of the city in Botticelli’s time, promoted the erection of a monument to Giotto in the Florence Cathedral in 1490 (fig. 1).2 The monument’s relief portrait of the artist, sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano, shows Giotto at work on an archaizing mosaic icon of Christ, an actual work of mosaic embedded in Benedetto’s relief and in this sense comparable to Botticelli’s portrait with its inserted gold-ground Saint. Also in 1490, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son Piero succeeded in acquiring a painting he considered a Cimabue, the double-sided panel of the Presentation of John and Mary and the Lamentation currently in the Harvard Art Museums and now attributed to Lippo di Benivieni.3

The collecting of older works is part of a larger trend in the cultural world of Medici-dominated Florence in the later fifteenth century. Not only did the major artists’ workshops set their apprentices to study the works of the earlier Florentine masters; they also compiled lore about the history of Florentine art. The future discipline of the History of Art has its origins in the Florentine workshops, whose oral traditions were beginning to be committed to writing. In a letter to his fellow artists that concluded the 1550 edition of his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari says that he was helped in writing his history of Italian art since Cimabue by notes written down by the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli’s contemporary. The burgeoning interest in the history of the previous two centuries of art went hand in hand with efforts of conservation. At the end of the fifteenth century, Ghirlandaio’s shop was engaged in restoring and reframing a number of fourteenth-century altarpieces, including at least one by Giotto.4 It is possible that the piece of gold-grounded painting embedded in Botticelli’s portrait came from the framework of one of the older altarpieces that was being dismantled and restored by Florentine artists in the fifteenth century.

The youth holding the roundel in Botticelli’s portrait might have known exactly who painted it, or he may have believed it to be by a more important artist than Bulgarini. Or perhaps the gesture is meant to stage a more general and symbolic contrast, a young man in fashionable dress offering to us a venerable figure painted in venerable times—a timely modern figure inviting us to appreciate a figure of timeless sanctity. The pattern of the punch holes in the gold ground, extending vertically off the top and bottom edges of the icon, reveals that the image of the saint was not originally round but was cut into that shape, presumably in order to be inserted into this portrait. The roundel format imposed on the saint image makes it resonate with associations to ancient coins and imagines clipeatae (in ancient Roman times, portraits of ancestors on round shields, then more generally portrait busts in a round format). As presented here, isolated in the form of a tondo, the saint image seems less like a fragment of Trecento painting than like a precious antique relic, imprinted with the language of Greco-Roman antiquity. The saint’s exotic forked beard, his classical robes, and the ritualized hand gesture come across neither as the inventions of a modern (fourteenth-century) artist nor as the fruits of antiquarian research, but instead as the attributes of the ancient saint himself, reliably transmitted through the centuries.

In physically embedding an older image, Botticelli’s portrait is an early instance of a practice that would become widespread in the sixteenth century, whereby venerable images were reframed in new figurative and architectural ensembles. These “reliquaries for images” are known primarily by the German term Bildtabernakel.5 The figurative staging of Botticelli’s portrait, however, where a figure holds the embedded image and presents it to the viewer, belongs to an older tradition within Byzantine art itself, where we see a saint or an angel holding an image (often enough a tondo image) of Christ or the Virgin.6 A twelfth-century steatite icon of the Archangel Gabriel holding a round icon of Christ is now in the Museo Bandini in Fiesole, near Florence, and might well have been known in Florence in Botticelli’s time (fig. 2).7 The Botticelli portrait continues this tradition but with significant shifts: in the place of the beautiful long-haired angel is a beautiful long-haired youth, and in the place of a timeless Christ icon is a relatively recent painting of a saint. Rather than depicting a timeless image, the Botticelli portrait presents a relic of gold-ground painting from the Tuscan Trecento for a discerning audience of emergent art connoisseurs. In Botticelli’s portrait, religious devotion is not yet separate from a culture of artistic veneration and historical pride.

Fig. 2. Archangel Gabriel, 12th century, Fiesole, Museo Bandini / Alinari, Art Resource, NY

A slightly later moment in this cultural development is well encapsulated by a story told by Vasari about the Raphael pupil Perino del Vaga. Upon seeing that a Madonna fresco by Giotto in Old St. Peter’s was in danger of being destroyed during the renovation of the basilica, Perino had it removed from the wall and placed in a safer part of the church, surrounded by a new frame and other pieces of Trecento memorabilia—a restoration assemblage that aimed to preserve the art of the past in the context of its time. According to Vasari, Perino intervened out of piety, “per pietà a quella pittura.” The word pietà meant both pity and piety, and here both meanings are at play. The old religious devotion originally commanded by Giotto’s Madonna has been compounded by the historian’s veneration for an old work under threat of extinction. It is difficult to say when one kind of pietà superseded the other, and around 1500 the two kinds mingled quite a bit.

The youth props the roundel directly on the parapet, another framing device, itself invented by European painters in their adaptations of the half-length or bust-length format of Byzantine icons. The figure of the saint is cut off at the same point as that of the youth, suggesting a relationship between the two. The vertical punch holes in the saint image frame his figure much as the straight lines of the window embrasure frame the youth. The portrayed sitter holds and presents the sacred portrait, now clearly identifiable as a prototype for the modern portrait that contains it. If Botticelli’s portrait is telling a story about the development of portraiture itself, what is that story?

In the opening of chapter two of his 1435 treatise Della Pittura, Leon Battista Alberti celebrated painting for its capacity to “make the dead after many centuries almost come to life.” Portraiture’s capacity to make a person’s presence extend beyond their lifetime is for Alberti directly related to the central function of portraits in religious cults. Portraiture, for Alberti, grounds painting's admirable role in shaping “images of the gods” and thus in promoting religion.8 Throughout the Middle Ages, saint icons were understood primarily as examples of ancient portraiture, effigies that brought one face to face with the earliest and most important figures of Christian history. Their sacred power derived from the fact that they were considered authentic likenesses of sacred people. Henry Maguire has shown just how stringent were the criteria for the accurate and thus effective portrayal of saints in the Byzantine tradition.9

Only in the fifteenth century did it become common in Europe to make portraits of anyone other than Christ, the saints, or royalty. The art of secular portraiture was revived in the half-century between Alberti’s treatise and Botticelli’s Portrait of a Youth with a Roundel. As descriptors like dal petto in sù (bust-length images from the chest up) and neologisms such as demy-image and mezza figura (to describe figures cut off at the waist) came into use in fifteenth-century inventories to describe icons imported from the eastern Mediterranean, portraiture came into being as a genre, adopting these same formats.10 The artists most interested in the Byzantine forms — the Limbourgs, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Jacopo Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Antonello da Messina — were the same artists who contributed most significantly to the early history of modern portraiture.11

In this refined youth’s hands, the old saint image represents a class of religious images, but it also becomes the model for the modern portrait, and in a broader sense of the work of art. The religious image comes into being in the hands of art, and through that restaging it becomes a model for art. The circularity of its molded frame articulates the new closure that attends the categorical shift from functional image to collectible.12 The roundel rests on the parapet, a contact of edge with edge that makes us feel the icon’s objecthood. It is tilted slightly up; we see the bottom of the icon’s round frame and appreciate its portability.13 This is an object that needs to be held and presented, a work whose real frame now is the hands of its owner and the polite or learned conversation that begins when it is picked up and held out for someone to admire. The light picks out all these framing elements — the repeated ridges of the molding and the youth’s delicate fingers, carefully kept just clear of the relic’s surface. Held in its new setting, the image of the saint acquires an uncanny quality of animation. The saint looks up in the direction of the light, as if in this newly mobile condition he must maintain, compass-like, an active orientation in the cosmos.


1. See R. Stapleford, “Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Trecento Medallion,”in Burlington Magazine 129 (July 1987), pp. 428–36, here p. 432, associates the fragment in the Botticelli portrait with the altarpiece Bulgarini made for the Florentine church of Santa Croce, dated 1350, pieces of which still belong to the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce. Concurring with the view that the fragment comes from the Santa Croce altarpiece is J. Steinhoff-Morrison, “Bartolomeo Bulgarini and Sienese Painting of the Mid-Fourteenth Century,” Ph.D. diss., Princeton University 1990, pp. 343-57.

2. See A. Nagel and C. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, New York 2010, chapter 12, with further bibliography.

3. L. Bellosi, “Un Cimabue per Piero de’ Medici e il ‘Maestro della Pietà di Pistoia,’” in Prospettiva 67 (1992), pp. 49–52.

4. C.B. Strehlke, “Carpentry and Connoisseurship: The Disassembly of Altarpieces and the Rise in Interest in Early Italian Art,” in C. Dean, L. B. Kanter, and C.B. Strehlke, Rediscovering Fra Angelico: A Fragmentary History, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, CT 2001, pp. 41-58. See also K. Krüger, “Medium and Imagination: Aesthetic Aspects of Trecento Panel Painting,” in Victor M. Schmidt (ed.), Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, Studies in the History of Art, 37, Washington, D.C. 2002, pp. 57–81, esp. pp. 57–58. On the problem more generally, C. Hoeniger, The Renovation of Paintings in Tuscany, 1250–1500, Cambridge 1995, chapter 5.

5. See M. Warnke, “Italienische Bildtabernakel bis zum Frühbarock,” in Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunstx 19 (1968), pp. 61–102.

6. The connection between Botticelli’s portrait and this Byzantine tradition was drawn by P. Kathke, Porträt und Accessoire: Eine Bildnisform im 16. Jahrhundert, Berlin 1997, p. 189 and fig. 137.

7. See I. Kalavrezou-Maxeiner, Byzantine Icons in Steatite, Vienna 1985, cat. no. 30, pp. 119-22. The icon in Fiesole was introduced into the discussion of the Botticelli portrait by Nathaniel Jones in a seminar paper at Yale University, 2007.

8. L.B. Alberti, Della pittura, in Opere Volgari, ed. C. Grayson, Bari 1973, vol. 3, pp. 44–45 (bk. 2, section 25).

9. H. Maguire, The Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium, Princeton 1996, esp. ch. 1.

10. S. Ringbom, Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-Century Devotional Painting, Doornspijk 1984, pp. 39-52.

11. On the impact of eastern icons in northern European art, see M. Ainsworth, “‘A la façon grèce’: The Encounter of Northern Renaissance Artists with Byzantine Icons,” in Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557), ed. H.C. Evans, exhibition catalogue, New York 2004, pp. 545–55. For the connection between icons and portraits in the case of Giovanni Bellini, see R. Goffen, “Icon and Vision: Giovanni Bellini’s Half-Length Madonnas,” Art Bulletin 57 (1975), pp. 487–519.

12. The matter of the molded frame depicted by Botticelli, which is not simply brown but given a metallic sheen, is discussed by R. Stapleford 1987, as well as by P. Kathke 1997, p. 186.

13. The tilting of the roundel so that we see its bottom edge was a late-coming idea. Perfectly circular incised lines in this part of the portrait show that originally the roundel was originally to be shown exactly flat against the picture plane.

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